Monday, November 10, 2014

How the police help themselves to your belongings

[Las Cruces, New Mexico city attorney Harry] Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

The practice of civil forfeiture has come under fire in recent months, amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights. In one oft-cited case, a Philadelphia couple’s home was seized after their son made $40 worth of drug sales on the porch. Despite that opposition, many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets. ...

In the Georgia session, the prosecutor leading the talk boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture in Georgia, where seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car. ...

But in the video, [chief of the forfeiture unit in Mercer County, New Jersey Sean] McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said.

Prosecutors boasted in the sessions that seizure cases were rarely contested or appealed. But civil forfeiture places the burden on owners, who must pay court fees and legal costs to get their property back. Many seizures go uncontested because the property is not worth the expense. ...

Mr. McMurtry said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,” Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. ...

Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car. ...

“I can’t tell you how many people have come in and said, ‘Oh, my hijito would never do that,’ ” [a police officer] said, mimicking a female voice with a Spanish accent.